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Conflict with baseball umpires: an observational study.

The purpose of this study was to examine conflict between umpires and players/coaches in amateur baseball. Investigators observed 70 baseball games, 35 each in an adult sandlot league (SL) and a high school world series (HWS). Investigators positioned themselves between home plate and first base and recorded the number of conflicts for ball/strike, first base, tag out, balk, foul line, and "other" calls. They also recorded who was involved in each conflict and the inning, score, and number of outs at the time. Conflicts were rated as minor comments, mild disputes, or heated arguments. There was no difference in the mean number of conflicts per game between the two settings or among the teams in either setting. Most disputes were minor comments (SL = 83%; HWS = 85%), and there were only five heated arguments in over 5,000 at bats. However, one umpire and one team were involved in all three of the heated arguments in the SL, and one umpire was involved in both of the heated arguments in the HWS. Most disputes involved ball/strike calls (SL = 56%; HWS = 50%); tag out calls were the second most common focus of disputes (SL = 24%; HWS = 17%). The incidence of conflict was related to time of game in the SL, number of outs in the HWS, and whether a team was ahead, tied, or behind in both settings. Results suggest that serious conflict is rare in amateur baseball, but that participants may try to manipulate umpires through mild conflict.

Mother, may I slug the umpire, May I slug him right away, So he cannot be here, mother, When the clubs begin to play...

This anonymous bit of poetry, from the Chicago Tribune of August 15, 1886, is quoted by Voigt (1970) in his article entitled "America's Manufactured Villain - The Baseball Umpire." In this article Voight describes the history of our perceptions and treatment of umpires. The poem illustrates the type of umpire baiting which was common at the end of the 19th century. Voight reported that as early as 1873, an umpire had to be protected from the wrath of the crowd at a National Association game in Philadelphia. Voight also suggested that team owners of that era actually promoted umpire baiting because it brought fans to the ball parks. Sometimes the owners went so far as to pay the fines of players who were fined for harassing umpires.

Reports in contemporary newspapers and magazines indicate that mistreatment of umpires continues today. Some of these incidents gain national prominence because they occur in the spotlight of professional sport. Millions watched on television as a fan at a New York Yankees-Milwaukee Brewers playoff game in 1981 came out of the stands to attack umpire Mike Reilly, who had called Dave Winfield out on a close play at third base the inning before (Anderson, 1981). Another type of harassment occurred following the World Series of 1985. In the last half of the 9th inning of Game 6, the Cardinals led the Royals 1-0 and only had to win the game to win the Series. However, after umpire Don Denkinger called Jorge Orta safe on a play at first base (replays indicate that Orta was out), the Royals rallied to win that game, Game 7, and the Series. Denkinger was subsequently deluged with hundreds of hostile letters and obscene phone calls (Fimrite, 1986). In April 1988, Reds manager Pete Rose shoved umpire Dave Pallone during a heated argument. Rose was ejected from the game and there was nearly a riot at Cincinnati's Riverfront Stadium. Rose was subsequently suspended for 30 days (Wulf, 1988).

Other incidents have occurred in the relative obscurity of local competition. An article from the state of Washington's Tri-City Herald ("State's Softball Umpires," 1991) reported more than a dozen attacks on softball umpires in one season. In one such incident, the umpire was "chased in his vehicle by three players in a pickup, forced into oncoming traffic and beaten and kicked until he bled". Later that year the same paper ("Coach Gets Year," 1991) reported the story of a 46-year-old Little League coach who hit an umpire with an aluminum bat in an argument about a game suspended because of darkness. In East St. Louis, Illinois, a 36-year-old assistant coach argued with a 16-year-old umpire after the umpire had called his player out at home plate. The coach was ejected and left the field, but he returned later with a handgun and fired a shot, though no one was wounded. The coach was later arrested (Mano, 1991).

Such violence is not being ignored by umpires and their organizations. Indeed, in recent years violent behavior by players, coaches, or fans has lead increasingly to legal action. For example, in an Oklahoma case ("Baseball Coach Convicted," 1982) the District Court convicted an assistant coach who punched an umpire in the jaw. His conviction was upheld by the Court of Criminal Appeals. Such incidents have become common enough that the journal of the National Association of Sport Officials, Referee, often discusses them in its legal column. The issue of July, 1989 reported 13 cases of assault on sport officials, 6 of them involving baseball or softball umpires ("What it Cost," 1989). Other authors have focused on the legal recourse officials have if they are slandered (Narol & Dedopolous, 1982) or physically assaulted (Narol, 1986). In this latter article, Narol presents a 5-step process for responding to assault. He concludes with advice to obtain the services of a lawyer to investigate the possibility of civil or criminal action.

Thus, there is a long history of abusing umpires in our culture, and newspapers, magazines, and professional publications have reported these incidents for well over 100 years. However, despite this popular notoriety, there have been no studies in scientific journals about violence directed at umpires. This may be because sport psychologists and sociologists have, until recently, paid relatively little attention to the role of sport officials. However, there is now increasing interest in the psychology of sport officiating (Weinberg & Richardson, 1990). Further, some investigators (Taylor, Daniel, Leith, & Burke, 1990) have reported that concern about conflicts with participants is one factor related to stress among sport officials.

The purpose of the present study was to examine the incidence, intensity, and nature of conflict between baseball umpires and players/coaches across a series of related games. Two different settings were chosen in order to examine the possibility that features of competition, such as age of competitors and league play vs tournament play, may be related to conflict with umpires. Because this study was observational and exploratory, no specific hypotheses were stated.



The subjects of this study were the participants (players and coaches) and umpires from two amateur baseball competitions. One setting was the highest level summer sandlot league (SL) in a large Midwestern city. This league had been operating continuously for decades, though there were only five teams competing by the end of the summer. All games in this league were officiated by umpires from one association, and the officials assigned to these games were among the most experienced and skilled in the association. Players in the SL were college athletes home for the summer and young adults, most in their 20's and 30's.

The second setting was the annual High School World Series (HWS) of the Continental American Baseball Association. This HWS was held in a suburb of the same Midwestern city. The umpires for the HWS were all from one association, but a different one than those officiating in the SL. Again, they were the most experienced and competent of their association. Players in the HWS were high school juniors or younger. They played for 11 teams from across the United States and one team from Puerto Rico. Some of the teams were regional All-Star teams, and others were high school teams that had won regional competitions.

In both settings, officiating was conducted by two-person teams, except that the final game of the HWS had four umpires. In the SL a regulation game was nine innings, and in the HWS a regulation game was seven innings. However, both settings had provisions for shortening games when scores became too lopsided.


Thirty-five games were observed in each setting. In the SL the games were played over a 2-month period; in the HWS, the games were played in a 2-week period. Observers were two college undergraduates who were trained by the senior author during 12 intercollegiate games the prior spring. Observers positioned themselves between home plate and first base, and they were free to move up and down that baseline to follow the action. This positioning placed them as close as possible to most officiating calls and most conflicts. Observers were very near the action, and they were able to hear comments in the infield of both settings.

Each game was observed continuously from start to finish. Observers used a standard recording form and recorded any conflict over an umpire's call for ball/strike, first base, tag, balk, foul line, and "other" calls. For each conflict, the observers recorded the inning, score, number of outs, and who was involved in the conflict. Then they recorded a brief description of what happened.

Observers also immediately rated the intensity of each conflict using a four category scale. Incidents were rated as minor comments (one or two comments directed at the umpire with little or no response by the umpire), mild disputes (two to three angry exchanges between the participant and umpire, with no disruption of the game or ejection involved), heated arguments (angry arguments that lasted 30 seconds or more, disrupted the flow of the game, and may have involved a warning or ejection), or physical assaults (one or more of the participants pushed, poked, hit, kicked, or threw something at the official). In order to assess the reliability of the observations and ratings, the senior author independently observed seven (10%) of the games.


An analysis of the data for the seven games co-observed by the senior author revealed that there was 92% agreement on the occurrence of conflicts. All of the failures to agree involved minor comments, and all of these involved whether or not a batter or catcher said something to the home plate umpire. There was 100% agreement on the rating of the intensity of conflicts. Thus, it was concluded that the reliabilities of the observations and ratings were adequate.

Frequency of Disputes

There was a total of 196 disputes observed during the 70 games. During the 35 games observed in the SL, involving 2,791 at bats, there were 81 disputes, a mean of 2.4 per game. However, 83% of these were minor comments. There were only three heated arguments and no physical assaults. During the 35 HWS games involving 2,240 at bats, there were 115 disputes observed, a mean of 3.3 per game. Again, the vast majority of these, 85%, were minor comments. There were only two heated arguments in the HWS and no physical assaults. The types of calls that were most frequently disputed were identical in the two settings. Most disputes involved ball/strike calls (SL = 56%; HWS = 50%), and disputes about tag out calls were second most common in both settings (SL = 24%; HWS = 17%).

The difference between the mean number of disputes per game in the two settings was not significant, t(68) = 1.74, p |is greater than~ .05. Further, the differences in mean number of disputes per game among teams in the SL, F(4,62) = 1.13, and the HWS, F(10,58) = 1.23, were both nonsignificant, p |is greater than~ .05.

Participants in Disputes

Data were also analyzed in terms of who was involved in the disputes. Home plate umpires were involved in 75% of the disputes in both settings. Disputes also more often involved the team at bat than the team on defense in both settings (SL = 74%; HWS = 70%). The difference in the number of disputes involving offenses or defenses is significantly greater than that expected by chance for both the SL, ||chi~.sup.2~(1) = 67.19, p |is greater than~ .0001, and the HWS, ||chi~.sup.2~(1) = 19.21, p |is less than~ .001.

There was a marked difference between the two settings in terms of which participants, players or coaches, argued most with the umpires. In the SL, coaches rarely disputed the umpires (11%), while the players were involved in most of the arguments (89%). This difference is significantly greater than that expected by chance, ||chi~.sup.2~(1) = 49.00, p |is less than~ .001. In the HWS, coaches were involved in most of the disputes (57%), while players were less often involved (43%). This difference for the HWS is not significantly greater than that expected by chance, ||chi~.sup.2~(1) = 1.96, p |is greater than~ .05.

Finally, it is notable that one umpire and one team were involved in all three of the heated arguments observed in the SL. Similarly, one umpire was involved in both of the heated arguments in the HWS.

Game Variables

Three game variables were analyzed to determine if they were related to the incidence of disputes. The first variable investigated was the time in the game at which the disputes occurred. For each league, the innings of the games were coded into early, middle, and late innings (SL: early = innings 1-3, middle = 4-6, and late = 7-9; HWS: early = innings 1 and 2, middle = 3-5, and late = 6 and 7). Analysis revealed that the incidence of disputes was related to time of game in the SL, ||chi~.sup.2~(2) = 11.56, p |is less than~ .01. Significantly more disputes than expected by chance occurred early in the games and fewer disputes than expected by chance occurred late in the games. However, no such relationship existed for the timing of disputes in the HWS, ||chi.sup.2~(2) = 1.11, p |is greater than~ .05.

The second variable investigated was the number of outs at the time each conflict occurred. The incidence of disputes was found to be unrelated to number of outs for the SL, ||chi~.sup.2~(3) = 4.88, p |is greater than~ .05, but there was a significant relationship in the HWS, ||chi~.sup.2~(3) = 12.62, p |is less than~ .01. Among the participants in the HWS, the tendency to dispute the umpire was significantly lower than expected by chance when the third out had already occurred.

Finally, the data were also analyzed to determine if conflicts with the umpires were more likely to occur when a team was ahead, tied, or behind in the score. There was a significant relationship for this variable in both the SL, ||chi~.sup.2~(2) = 7.63, p |is less than~ .05, and the HWS, ||chi~.sup.2~(2) = 34.04, p |is less than~ .001. In both settings, more disputes than expected by chance occurred when teams were behind and fewer when the score was tied.


In interpreting these results, it is important to keep in mind that the observational nature of this study precludes any cause and effect conclusions. The two settings simply varied in too many ways. For example, not only was one setting tournament competition and the other league competition, but the ages and experience levels of the participants differed, and the umpires came from two different associations. Nonetheless, observational studies can suggest interesting hypotheses that can be evaluated in better controlled studies.

Frequency of Disputes

Perhaps the most striking finding in this study is the very low incidence of serious conflict. Over 80% of the incidents recorded were minor comments that may not even warrant the label "conflict." Most of these were isolated angry comments about ball/strike calls. There was usually no eye contact with the participants (i.e., the batter or catcher never turned around to look at the umpire, or a coach yelled something from the dugout). There was also typically no response by the umpire. While it is difficult to assess their cumulative impact over time, these minor comments had no immediate impact on the game. Even those incidents labeled mild disputes were truly mild and not at all memorable. Often these brief encounters appeared to be attempts to "work" the umpire (i.e., to influence later calls) and the umpires seemed to recognize them as such and typically reacted with restraint and emotional distance.

There was a different quality about the five heated arguments. In these disputes participants and umpires alike lost some degree of personal control. However, these were quite rare, occurring once in 14 games, or once in more than 1,000 at bats! It is also very interesting that one umpire and one team were involved in all three heated arguments in the SL, and one umpire was involved in both heated arguments in the HWS. While restrictions of sample size caution against overinterpreting these data, they are consistent with the commonly held notion that a few "hot heads" account for most of the serious conflict with officials.

There were no physical assaults on umpires during the 70 games. This may seem surprising, given the history of reports about attacks on umpires, but these results simply emphasize the fact that such incidents are quite rare, a point often neglected in newspaper or magazine reports of violent attacks. However, it is possible that the nature of the two competitive settings minimized the amount of serious conflict. While the skill levels in the SL were fairly high, there was a very relaxed atmosphere about the competition. Most games were played in the evening, at the end of a day's work for most participants. Also, the college players home for the summer and the young adults still competing may not have been as serious about competition as they were in other settings or at other times. In the HWS, most of the teams were extremely well-mannered. No doubt the players were conscious of representing their regions, and they had been given instructions not to argue with the umpires. Further, the good behavior of the HWS athletes is consistent with comments made by umpires during this study. These umpires reported that they rarely have problems with high school baseball players. Indeed, they repeatedly stated that most of their conflicts occur when officiating softball games, especially adult softball.

Finally, it is notable that the most common types of disputes were the same in both settings. The majority of disputes in both settings involved ball/strike calls. This is consistent with the fact that ball/strike calls make up most of the calls in any game. However, it is important to recognize that the percentage of ball/strike calls disputed was not very high. Further, 92% of the disputes about balls and strikes were simple conflicts, and there were no heated arguments, perhaps because umpires in so many settings will not tolerate such disputes.

The second most common type of dispute in both leagues involved calls on tag outs. In fact, though specific data were not collected, it is clear that a higher percentage of tag out calls lead to disputes than did ball/strike calls. This may be because the consequences of an erroneous call are generally high for tag outs. They generally determine whether a runner is in scoring position or not (for calls at second or third base), or whether a run scores or not for calls at home plate. It is also true that the umpire has to deal with a high degree of action and visual complexity in these calls. As Brinkman and Euchner (1987) point out, the visual scene includes the moving fielder and runner, the ball, the base, and the rapid convergence of all those elements.

Thus, there seem to be fairly clear and stable explanations for ball/strike and tag calls being the most common sources of conflicts. One might anticipate that observations of baseball competition in other settings would generate similar findings.

Participants in Disputes

The reason home plate umpires were involved in 75% of the disputes is probably related to the fact that they make most of the calls in a ball game, primarily because of all the ball/strike calls they make. The reasons for teams at bat being involved in more disputes than teams in the field are not so clear. An analysis of disputes for different kinds of calls revealed that most of this difference occurred because batters argued about balls and strikes more often than pitchers, catchers or others on defense. In fact, this accounted for 80% of the difference. Nevertheless, it is also true that players on offense argued more than players on defense about first base and tag out calls. One possible explanation for this is that being on offense naturally creates a more aggressive style of play, at least in baseball. It may also be that, when an offensive player is called out, the experience is somehow more personal and generates a greater tendency to argue. Whatever the cause, this disparity in arguing with umpires between offenses and defenses was so great, a ratio of nearly 3:1, that it seems unlikely that it would be different in other baseball settings, though the pattern of disputes for offenses and defenses might well be different in other sports.

One of the major differences in the conflicts of the two settings was that coaches rarely argued with the umpires in the SL, but coaches were involved in a majority of the arguments in the HWS. It is possible that SL coaches felt less protective of their adult players or felt that these older players could fight their own battles. Conversely, the players in the HWS were instructed not to dispute calls and told that their managers would handle any problems. The HWS players did not avoid conflict entirely, but they did avoid serious conflict. Coaches and players in the HWS had almost equal numbers of minor conflicts, but both of the two heated arguments and 12 of 15 mild disputes involved coaches. What these data suggest is that conflict with baseball umpires can be affected by local norms or expectations.

Game Variables and disputes

The possibility that local norms or expectations regulate much of the arguing with umpires receives further support from the relationship between certain game variables and disputes. For example, it is interesting that more disputes occurred early in games and fewer disputes later in games in the SL. One interpretation of this is that SL participants may have attempted to influence later calls by arguing with umpires early in the game. Then they avoided arguing late in the game when the outcome was on the line or already decided. This variable was not a significant factor in the HWS, and it could be that participants at the higher level of competition are more sophisticated in using this strategy.

The relationship between the number of outs and the incidence of disputes can also be interpreted in such a way. In both settings, the fewest disputes occurred when there were already three outs (though this relation was significant only in the HWS). Certainly it would be least beneficial to argue with an official when the inning is already over.

Finally, the results also indicate that the tendency to dispute calls was related to whether a team was ahead, tied, or behind. One could reason that a team would have the most to gain, motivationally and strategically (i.e., influence the umpires subsequent calls) by arguing when behind. One might also reason that it would be most dangerous to dispute calls in a tie game. This was the pattern of disputes in both competitive settings.


In summary, this study suggests two basic conclusions, one regarding the intensity of umpire/participant conflict, and the other about the possible function of arguing with umpires. First, umpire/participant relationships in amateur baseball seem to be characterized by a moderate amount of low intensity complaining by participants--a type of social background noise or static. Serious conflict occurs only very rarely, though such incidents gain a great deal of attention, and these serious incidents may be accounted for by a few individuals. Second the ongoing low intensity conflict appears to be related to game variables, so as to suggest that it is fairly well regulated by the norms and purposes of the players and coaches in any setting. Thus, the data appear to be consistent with the notion that there is a "game within the game," in which the adversary is not the other team, but the umpire. This phenomenon is often described by the phrase "working the officials." If such an interpretation is valid, the role of the umpire in the social context of baseball competition is much more complex than that suggested by the official rule book. Both of these conclusions are of interest to sport psychologists and warrant further examination in other observational studies and in other studies that better control the many confounding variables.


Anderson, D. (1981, October 11). The crime of mugging the umpire. New York Times, p. 25.

Baseball coach convicted for assault on umpire. (1982). Sports and the Courts, 3(1), 8.

Brinkman, J., & Euchner, C. (1987). The umpire's handbook. Lexington, MA: Stephen Greene.

Coach gets year in jail for assaulting umpire. (1991, December 14). Tri-City Herald.

Fimrite, R. (1986, January). In the eye of the storm. Sports Illustrated, 64(1), 36-42.

Mano, B. (1991, July 28). When "kill the ump" took on new meaning. New York Times, p. S4(L).

Narol, M. (1986, April). Taking the offensive against assaults. Referee, 11(4), 11.

Narol, M. S., & Dedopolous, S. (1982, August). Verbal assaults: Understanding your rights. Referee, 7(8), 47, 53.

State's softball umpires fighting back after beatings. (1991, June 2). Tri-City Herald, p. A3.

Taylor, A. H., Daniel, J. V. Leith, L., & Burke, R. J. (1990). Perceived stress, psychological burnout and paths to turnover intentions among sport officials. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 2, 84-97.

Voigt, D. Q. (1970) America's manufactured villain--the baseball umpire. Journal of Popular Culture, 4(1), 1-21.

Weinberg, R. S., & Richardson, P. A. (1990). Psychology of officiating. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

What it cost those who attacked officials. (1989, July). Referee, 14(7), 34.

Wulf, S. (1988, May). 30 days. Sports Illustrated, 68(19), 22-25.
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Author:Rainey, David W.; Cherilla, Kevin
Publication:Journal of Sport Behavior
Date:Mar 1, 1993
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